Exploring Guatemala’s volcanoes

Jurg Widmer Guatemala - Volcano

Guatemala is famous for many things – great food, vibrant cities and an extraordinary Mayan heritage. But it is also the land of volcanoes. There are 37 volcanoes in Guatemala, and many of them are relatively straightforward to visit (three of them are still considered active). So, if you have never seen a real volcano up close before, or even if you are seasoned volcano hunter, then there are some truly incredible experiences waiting for you in the country. Here is our pick of the top three.

Acatenango

We have spoken before here about Antigua – the former capital of Guatemala and a truly stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a beautiful town to spend some time in. But once you tire of the baroque churches and the city’s quaint cobblestone churches, you might find that you are in the mood for something a little more dramatic. The nearby volcano known simply as ‘Fuego’, or ‘Fire’ is one of Latin America’s most active. It was in the news recently after it erupted again, forcing over 4,000 people who lived on or around it to flee. So, this is a serious volcano – and while it might not currently be the best idea to visit it, it is possible to trek up the nearby Acatenango. At 13,043 ft it is a tough climb, but the views of Fuego and the natural beauty of the mountain make it well worth the effort.

Pacaya

If you’d like to try something a little less strenuous, then Pacaya is a great option. The volcano is relatively close to Guatemala City – only around an hour and half’s drive. It is an accessible and fairly calm volcano in comparison to Fuego – probably the most dramatic thing you’ll experience is being able to toast marshmallows on the rocks on the way up! It’s not an easy walk, but it is certainly not in the same league as the tough hike up Acatenango. It takes around a couple of hours to get to the top from the village of San Francisco de Sales. If you time it right and you’re lucky with the weather then the views are absolutely spectacular.

Santa Maria

This is a tough climb from Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), the second largest city in Guatemala. Xela was formerly a Mayan city known as Xelajú, and even today you will meet lots of Mayan people both on the way up the volcano, and also praying at the top. The active part of the volcano is known as Santiaguito and it is possible to look down on it as you climb up on to the summit itself. On a clear day there are great views of the city of Xela and the lava dome of Santiaguito – but as always in Guatemala the weather can change quickly and if the clouds descend the views will be less impressive. It’s by no means an easy climb – easier than Acatenango but tougher than Pacaya, so a great one if you’re up for a bit of a challenge.

A few final words about visiting Guatemala’s incredible volcanoes. Firstly, we strongly recommend hiring a local guide or booking a tour with a reputable operator. Active or not, dormant or erupting, these are all potentially deadly and hazardous environments to visit, and you need to be with people who know what they are doing.

Of course, going with a local business and contributing financially to the community by paying for a tour is also a great way to support the people who live around the volcano. By its very nature, living close by these unpredictable giants can be a precarious existence – but by visiting them you can help to contribute to the local economy.

The recent dramatic eruptions of the Fuego volcano have shown just how quickly active volcanoes can kill and injure people, as well as displacing whole communities and leaving thousands homeless. With that in mind, everything that we can do as visitors to support the communities who live in these vulnerable areas, and help them to sustain their way of life, has to be valuable. Volcanoes are part of the fabric of this spectacular country, and visiting one should be at the top of everyone’s list.

Jürg Widmer 


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